Pure research deserves a place in the sun, too
Most of us have had the experience of driving around on a hot day searching for a shady parking spot. But imagine a scenario where, instead of avoiding the blistering sun, you welcome it, knowing your car â€” even its air conditioning â€” is solar-powered.
Solar energy has the potential to revolutionize our lifestyles. Â Now that the X Prize Foundation â€” a non-profit that rewards and encourages cross-disciplinary technological research with the clear ability to benefit humankind â€” Â has launched the third X Prize Lab in the country at USC, our students have a better chance than ever to play a part in the realization of solar energyâ€™s promise.
But although the benefits of this undertaking are astronomical, itâ€™s important to recognize that in scientific efforts intended to directly improve society â€” referred to as applied research â€” the importance of pure research sometimes gets overlooked. Although the research types often overlap, pure research is primarily motivated by plain curiosity instead of altruism.
We should caution ourselves against neglecting the lessÂ glamorous form of research.
Pure research rarely sounds as wonderful or important as applied research, so the latter gets all the media attention and the funding. Solar energy is extremely important, Â but if we donâ€™t make sure to gain a thorough knowledge of its necessary, potentially banal-sounding components before trying to save the world with it, itâ€™s actually kind of (ironically) self-serving.
According to the foundationâ€™s website, the goal is to â€śdrive innovators to solve some of the greatest challenges facing the world today.â€ť A noble mission indeed, and addressing the solar-energy problem, which has recently been identified as one of the main Grand Challenges of the National Academy of Engineering, in endlessly sunny Southern California seems appropriate.
Itâ€™s not surprising that USC was chosen for this laboratory, considering the prestige and quality of its engineering and business schools. The campus is also the site of an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy with a focus on solar-energy conversion and solid-state lighting. The other two X Prize labs are at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Washington.
Every hour, enough sunlight falls on the planetâ€™s surface to meet the energy demands of the entire human race for a year, according to the DOE. Itâ€™s our most abundant energy source, and unlike burning fossil fuels, itâ€™s environmentally friendly. Considering the increasingly apparent effects of global warming and the fact that Los Angeles suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the country, itâ€™s especially crucial for us to explore this alternative energy source.
The problem is that we havenâ€™t quite figured out how to harness the sunâ€™s energy efficiently. Most solar cells, from thin-film to mono-crystalline, have relatively low efficiencies. The efficiencies of organic solar cells are even lower. Photons, which carry different amounts of energy depending on the solar spectrum wavelength they correspond with, need to be absorbed into the solar cellâ€™s semi-conductive material to generate electricity.
So far, the materials that scientists have tried using for absorption are either not efficient enough, too expensive to be economically viable for mass production, or both. Many of the photons simply pass through or get reflected off of the material.
Although the solutions to such problems will be able to further aid applied research endeavors, we must not overlook the fact that pure research laid out the majority of the groundwork.
The X Prize Lab at USC shows promise because students and professors from the Viterbi School of Engineering and the Marshall School of Business will take a close, critical look at all of the existing solar-
energy science and the current market structure to come up with recommendations for solar challenges that can be funded as X Prizes. One of the most effective ways to make progress in any field is to converge operations in this cross-disciplinary way so that the strengths of one discipline can compensate for the weaknesses of another.
The university is fortunate to have such a quality combination of assets.
But as I said before, although itâ€™s important to make sure our research ideas are marketable, we need to keep in mind the importance of science that doesnâ€™t necessarily sound like a be-all, end-all breakthrough.
For example, we might be quick to fund a study thatâ€™s meant to discern the correlation between household smoking and childhood asthma. But if we do find a correlation, we might immediately assume that smoking causes asthma. Unless we do a not-so-wonderful-sounding, more technical study that separately exposes rats to environmental stressors and cigarette smoke, and directly observes the physiological effects, we wonâ€™t know for sure.
Solar energy has the potential to solve a lot of our problems but first we have to solve the problems with gathering solar energy itself. Itâ€™s the responsibility of our students and professors to evaluate each idea on its own merits, and to keep in mind that just because something doesnâ€™t necessarily sound life-altering, doesnâ€™t mean that itâ€™s not.
Jean Guerrero is a seniorÂ majoring in print journalism. Â Her column â€śScientasticalâ€ť runs Mondays.